It’s finals week, which can mean only one thing: putting all work off to rewatch your favorite moments from Downton Abbey, the British period drama starring an incompetent doctor, a father unable to make a single decent financial decision, and a chauffeur-turned-wingman. (Side note: someone could definitely write some Downton Abbey-themed lyrics to the tune of “12 Days of Christmas”). In all seriousness, the acclaimed British series that ran from 2010 to 2015 chronicled the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, along with the trials and tribulations faced by the castle’s domestic staff. And as with all British television (see Doctor Who and Call the Midwife), most seasons featured an extra episode following the finale, usually set during Christmas. These episodes often ran for a whopping one and a half hours and were essentially self-contained films.
In fact, the success of these episodes might have been the impetus for a movie studio to green light not only one, but two films! The first film, Downton Abbey, was released almost 5 years after the series’ finale and performed remarkably well at the box office. Its sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is set to be released in March 2022. Now, back to the show’s Christmas specials – not only were these episodes exceptionally entertaining, but they were also crucial to the overall storyline of the show. Below, I give my ranking of the five Downton Abbey Christmas specials.
Spoilers for all seasons of Downton Abbey follow.
5. Season 5: “A Moorland Holiday”
This Christmas special was perfectly serviceable; it had all of the elements of a classic Downton episode: the introduction of several romantic pairings, a completely useless B-plot involving Denker and Spratt (cook and butler, respectively, to the Dowager Countess) making broth, and a child born out of wedlock! However, the entire affair was bogged down by the still-ongoing Bates-Anna murder/prison storyline (yes, that happened), which is probably every Downton fan’s least favorite plot. Yet, the episode still featured a touching moment of remembrance for the late Sybil, youngest of the three Crawley sisters.
4. Season 3: “A Journey to the Highlands”
This episode is split between two locations: the magnificent Duneagle castle in the Scottish Highlands and Downton Abbey. Now before we talk about anything else, there’s one infamous event that occurs in this episode that might be the most-discussed moment in all of Downton, and that’s (MAJOR SPOILERS) the death of Matthew Crawley. Matthew unexpectedly became the heir to Downton in the first season due the death of its previous heir on the Titanic. Initially unwilling to conform to the aristocratic Crawley family’s traditions, Matthew slowly grows to appreciate the estate and falls in love with the oldest Crawley sister, Mary (I apologize, that recap was criminally abridged). However, he was notoriously written out of the show because his actor, Dan Stevens, wanted out of the show to pursue other acting opportunities. And that’s a shame because this Christmas special had a lot going for it: a wonderful score to emphasize the bleak Scottish landscape, the introduction to the charming Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), and a somewhat positive Thomas Barrow storyline (he was the often-antagonistic, closeted Downton footman). Nevertheless, Matthew’s death still overshadows every positive moment, bringing the entire special down in the overall rankings.
3. Season 4: “The London Season”
I wasn’t expecting to place the Season 4 special this high in the rankings, but I think it was the combination of a unique story and one-off characters that stood out to me upon revisiting the episode. This special featured an actual HEIST in which Crawley and Co. needed to retrieve a stolen letter that divulged an affair between the Prince of Wales (yes, of the Royal Family) and his secret mistress – truly crazy stuff. The audience was also introduced to the American side of the Crawley family, along with a wholesome storyline in which the Countess of Grantham’s brother Harold finds unexpected companionship with the Honorable Madeleine Allsopp.
2. Season 6: “The Finale”
Downton’s “The Finale” also serves as the culmination of the entire series, wrapping up all major storylines and character arcs (a large number of which ended in weddings). The show made sure to leave no character unhappy; here’s just a few endings: Anna and Bates successfully have a child, Barrow becomes the butler of Downton, Tom opens an auto-business with his bro-friend Henry Talbot (Mary’s new husband), Edith becomes Marchioness of Hexham upon marrying Bertie Pelham, Isobel and Dickie finally settle their seasons-long romance, Spratt is revealed as the anonymous writer for Lady Edith’s magazine, and more. There’s honestly no way to provide the context to all of these stories, but sleep well knowing that Downton crafted a satisfying, tear-jerking, and resonant final episode for its audience.
1. Season 2: “Christmas at Downton Abbey”
The Christmas special that started it all remains unbeaten. In it, the servants discover a Ouija board, which plays a surprising role in the episode’s main story. The insufferably evil Sir Richard Carlisle (played by Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen) finally gets his comeuppance for attempting to blackmail Lady Mary into marriage. And of course, the episode ends on one of my favorite moments in television ever: the long-awaited marriage proposal between Matthew and Mary (outside with the snow falling and their musical theme playing – I’m crying now).